Revisting “Liberation Theology”… and Repenting

Among the discussions last weekend — at a spiritual direction training program I am attending (via the Episcopal Diocese of Texas) — was one focused on liberation theology.

Among the assigned readings at Perkins School of Theology in the early 80’s was Justo Gonzalez’s Liberation Preaching. Many of those I have served through the years will “know” Gonzalez and this book — as it is the source of musings on “Lone Ranger Spirituality.”

For those who have never heard of it before, LT explores the ways that power brokers in the world (including the Church) have and still can oppress and neglect and abuse individuals.  Enough individuals in a given demographic finding their voices and you have movements emerging—as, for example…

  • Feminist theology (represented in the writings of Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza),
  • Black liberation theology (represented in the writings of James Cone), and
  • Hispanic/Central American Liberation Theology (represented in the writings of Justo Gonzalez).

I recall of a seminary theology course (some 40 years ago)— with an intensive focus on these theologies and authors.  Nearing the end of these discussions and readings, I found myself raising my hand and asking, “As a white, American male, what should my posture and response be in light of all of this material?”

“The appropriate response of white, American males,” the professor responded, without pause, “is to work out a theology of repentance.”

I’ll admit to defensiveness as a first reaction.  “I’m certainly not the problem here!,” went the thinking.

In time, the truth soaked in – or at least some of the truth. Eventually, over the course of the ensuing 30+ years of teaching and preaching, it would take the following standard form:

  • In various settings, I’d recall my question and the professo’rs response from that seminary course.
  • And then I’d add, with firmness, “Yes, I need to repent. But, truth is, we all need to repent!…  If I need to repent of the high horse I have been on, then there are those out there who need to repent of their failure to get up on any horse at all!”

I can still remember many lily white congregants nodding in agreement.

Recalling this personal history with classmates this last weekend (in that discussion on liberation theology), I came to acknowledge the shallowness of (indeed, I came to repent of) that standard reply from across the years.  It (this response) seemed to imply that it’s all about getting on a “high horse.”  And if, indeed, if it is about getting on a horse, my response seemed to suggest that everybody had a horse to get on!  Truly, among the many insights I’ve gained from 2020 (and now 2021) –not just from Black Lives Matter discussions but clear reports about inequities in education and health care across America –it is that, in America (great as it might be), everyone does not have equal access to a horse!

From this brief review, the gifts of liberation theology are clear: not just a legitimate suspicion of the agendas and practices of the power structures of this world but an acknowledgement of the subtle (if not unconscious) ways they can play all around (and in) us – including in our churches and pulpits and studies and souls.

And, too, there’s the essential reminder that there is no such thing as personal salvation apart from social-communal salvation.

Here, I am reminded just one more time, of an essential tension in spiritual formation – represented in the name of Richard Rohr’s ministry: namely, it is a matter of contemplation and action!  Spiritual formation is internal work, yes.  But, it is internal work that reaches the surface of our lives and living (as individuals and as communities).  To paraphrase the epistle of James: “contemplation without action is dead.”

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